Hotels Getting Social To Compete With the Sharing Economy

By Simon Hudson Endowed Chair in Tourism and Hospitality, University of South Carolina | February 18, 2018

Recent research suggests that the sharing economy appeals to consumers not just because of price, flexibility, and ease of use. Consumers are also attracted by social benefits; guests of Airbnb for example, enjoy interacting with their hosts in an ‘authentic’ setting, and even gain local connections with the host’s help. There are also emotional benefits to using sharing economy platforms - research has shown that users of Airbnb have more fun than they do staying at more traditional accommodations. 

This can be as simple as hosting a social hour for guests on arrival. I stayed at the Sutton Place Hotel at the base of the ski hill in Revelstoke, Canada, and was invited to a welcome reception to enjoy a glass of wine and a selection of locally-sourced cheeses. The key motivation behind the event, hosted every evening from 4-7pm, is to encourage guests to socialize, says concierge Marco Mahringer. “We also use it as an opportunity to provide guests with further information about the hotel and what they can do during their stay.” Mahringer says that about 80% of guests come down for a drink on their first evening. “Often they are a little stressed and tired after a long journey, so it is a great way for them to relax and speak to fellow skiers or snowboarders”.

Other hotel groups are completely redesigning spaces in order to encourage social interaction. The M-Beta in Charlotte, for example, Marriott’s testing ground for new hotel technology and services, encourages social interaction between guests and staff in several ways. On arrival, there is no traditional front desk check-in. Guests are welcomed at the curb by associates, who guide them through check-in at tables in the lobby, similar to how Geniuses greet customers at an Apple store. In the Immersive Kitchen at Stoke restaurant, the walls between the kitchen and dining area have been removed, placing guests in the center of the action, allowing chefs to interact more closely with guests and entertain them with impromptu culinary offerings. The interactive space also encourages a sense of exploration among guests with a regular rotation of local artisan tastings and cooking classes.

Meanwhile, Marriott’s Element brand is piloting a bold new guest room design that which features a communal room in the center of four guest rooms, allowing travelers to share a kitchen, dining room and lounge area. The company says that this will provide more collaborative space for groups who would like to spend time together in a more private setting. Element hotels tend to offers travelers a fresh interpretation of the traditional hotel experience with natural light, modern design, healthy options and eco-minded sensibilities. To date, there are 22 Element Hotels worldwide, with 19 in North America, two in Europe and one in Asia Pacific, with new domestic and international hotels in development.  

The Bivvi Hostel in Breckenridge, Colorado, also uses space as a way of encouraging social interaction. The property describes itself on its website as ‘basically a hotel with more shared space. All this shared space is the fiber for shared stories, shared experiences, and new friends!’ “There wasn’t a hostel in town until we opened three years ago,” says General Manager Balazs Jarai. “But the concept has really taken off.” Jarai said the idea behind the hostel was to provide something more affordable, but also to attract like-minded people. “In a regular hotel, you usually come back after a day’s activities or after dinner and go straight to your room. Here we have common spaces like the library, bar, hot tub, fire pit – lots of social space – so guests can hang out together.” Jarai says the hostel attracts different age groups from all over the world, but that they all tend to be sociable and open-minded. “We have everything from 18 year-old backpackers to 65 year-olds willing to use bunk-beds. So we see plenty of diversity and guests can guarantee to meet interesting people from around the world – in fact, we have a lot of guests who end up connecting on Facebook and staying friends for life.” Jarai sees a trend in the US towards this type of accommodation. “The hostel idea is quite new to North America, but I think we will see more high-end ‘boutique-style’ hostels that are affordable, but cater to the demand for something a little more unique and authentic.” 

AccorHotels are also seeking to disrupt traditional notions of hotel keeping with the introduction of their new brand Jo&Jo. In fact, Accor’s Chairman and CEO Sebastien Bazin doesn’t call the new concept a hotel or hostel, but an ‘open house’ that blends the best of private rental, hostel and hotel format, and targets locals as well as visitors from afar. Different accommodation types include a modular sleeping area that guests share, and yurts, hammocks and caravans for groups of up to six people. Guests at Jo&Jo can also enjoy regular social programming, such as a concert or a yoga class, and spaces that encourage social interaction like a collaborative kitchen/stage for guests to showcase their culinary talents.  

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Coming up in April 2018...

Guest Service: Empowering People

Excellent customer service is vitally important in all businesses but it is especially important for hotels where customer service is the lifeblood of the business. Outstanding customer service is essential in creating new customers, retaining existing customers, and cultivating referrals for future customers. Employees who meet and exceed guest expectations are critical to a hotel's success, and it begins with the hiring process. It is imperative for HR personnel to screen for and hire people who inherently possess customer-friendly traits - empathy, warmth and conscientiousness - which allow them to serve guests naturally and authentically. Trait-based hiring means considering more than just a candidate's technical skills and background; it means looking for and selecting employees who naturally desire to take care of people, who derive satisfaction and pleasure from fulfilling guests' needs, and who don't consider customer service to be a chore. Without the presence of these specific traits and attributes, it is difficult for an employee to provide genuine hospitality. Once that kind of employee has been hired, it is necessary to empower them. Some forward-thinking hotels empower their employees to proactively fix customer problems without having to wait for management approval. This employee empowerment—the permission to be creative, and even having the authority to spend money on a customer's behalf - is a resourceful way to resolve guest problems quickly and efficiently. When management places their faith in an employee's good judgment, it inspires a sense of trust and provides a sense of higher purpose beyond a simple paycheck. The April issue of the Hotel Business Review will document what some leading hotels are doing to cultivate and manage guest satisfaction in their operations.